I have to admit, when the Patriots first started announcing the names of the undrafted free agent rookies they signed post-draft, I didn't give Jeff Thomas, the wide receiver out of U of Miami a second thought. That place in my heart that draws me to undersized potential folk heroes who fell through the cracks of the draft and are looking for a shot fell for 5-foot-5 running back J.J. Taylor out of Arizona. And there was simply no room for another. In my heart or my 53-man roster.
That is, until I came across this piece in USA Today about Thomas, who appeared in "89 Blocks," a Fox documentary about East St. Louis high school football that was produced by Lebron Jame and Sports Illustrated:
From the very long and in-depth USA Today profile:
With Thomas, there’s always more than what you see at first glance. The undrafted free agent rookie has signed on with the New England Patriots, where he will have a chance to overcome the “talented but troubled” tag slapped on him by NFL scouts and media members. From his pedigree — a four-star recruit and highly touted wideout for Miami — it’s tempting to say he’s underachieved so far in his 22 years.
But that doesn’t factor in where Thomas came from, or what he’s overcome. Talking to former coaches, teammates, and friends, a more complete picture of Thomas emerges, one that makes his tryout with the Patriots not an underachievement, but something closer to a miracle. …
A few days prior to [catching a game-winning pass in a playoff game], a classmate of Thomas’ died in a car chase while pursued by police after they attempted to pull over the 17-year-old for driving erratically. During the previous week, Thomas had missed practices and classes, which left him academically ineligible for one of the team’s games and left him in poor favor with the coaching staff.
As shown in “89 Blocks,” the team’s coach, [Darren] Sunkett, pleaded with Thomas’ teammates to kick him off the team for the indiscretions.
Sunkett told me that these pleas were an act, and that he knew Thomas’ teammates would vote to keep him. …
The players did indeed vote to keep Thomas. But after the vote, Thomas’ quarterback and friend Reyondous Estes said that Thomas confided in him why he’d missed practice — Thomas had taken a full-time job so he could help provide for his infant daughter, Chloe.
“Not many kids can be put in a position where they can be a star athlete when, at the same time, they’ve got to put in a nine-to-five to provide. That’s a hard pill to swallow,” Estes said. “Like, for example, Jeff Thomas [working] at Hardy’s or … at McDonalds. That’s a tough pill to swallow. But at the end of the day, [he needed to get his] daughter her Pampers.” …
He may have … been the best player at the Under Armour All-America game, a high school all-star game where he set records with three catches for 148 yards and two touchdowns.
That performance sold then-Miami head coach Mark Richt and ratcheted the Hurricanes’ all-out recruiting effort on Thomas, who Scout.com rated as the No. 5 wide receiver in the country and the No. 1 wideout from Illinois in the 2016 class. …
At Miami, Thomas tussled with all of his coaches, yet they all believe he has what it takes to make it at the next level. …At Miami, Thomas struggled in school and with tardiness, according to his position coaches. He began skipping meetings altogether when he grew frustrated that he wasn’t a big enough part of the offense. …
His combine showing was also a disappointment, with a 4.45-second 40-yard dash. The game film showed a blazing speedster, but that combine time wasn’t special, not after he boasted a 4.38-second 40-yard dash in high school. According to The Athletic, Thomas also struggled in interviews. …
Thomas had interest from multiple teams as an undrafted free agent coming out of Miami, according to his agent, Drew Rosenhaus. Thomas picked arguably the biggest challenge of them all: Bill Belichick and the Patriots.
I agree with the overall premise of the article, that the label "talented but troubled" can be unfair. Some 22-year-olds who get tagged with it have overcome more in their lives than the 50-somethings who slap the label on them will in 10 lifetimes. But it's not always wrong, either. The Hall of Fame is filled with guys who were considered "TBT," (Randy Moss) but so is the list of all time draft busts (Ryan Leaf). Some guys develop a bad reputation, some are just dicks to the core. They say pressure makes diamonds, but it also makes rubble.
Put your faith in the right guy and you're giving the speech at Curtis Martin's induction (believe it or not, there were concerns about him going into the draft. I shit you not.). Guess wrong, and you're Dick Vermeil crying your eyes out while explaining to Lawrence Phillips why he's being released.
In the case of Jeff Thomas, only time will tell if all that being late to meetings and beefing with his coaches was a result of him having a harder life than anyone should have. Becoming a father and having to work full time to support his family while he's still just a high school kid. Or if it means he's someone you can't depend on in a cold, calculating business where you don't have the luxury of depending on the undependable and everyone only gets so many chances to prove they belong. Rookies especially.
But I'm intrigued as hell by Thomas' potential. Maybe his numbers weren't blowing anybody's whistles off at the Combine. But they're comparable to other receivers in the 5-foot-10, 170 pound class. Like Penn State's K.J. Hamler, who went in the second round, 46th pick to Denver. Or Texas' Devin Duvernay, who went third round No. 92 to Baltimore. And like the article said, his game speed is much better than his stopwatch speed:
So put him in a stable environment, with a strong locker room, where showing up on time and being accountable will give him the chance to provide for his family, and see if he can reach the potential he had when he was one of the most sought after prospects in the country. If he can, no one will ever care that he had a tardiness problem in school or gave bad small talk in Indy. I just know it'll be fascinating to watch it play out. Jeff Thomas wasn't on my radar before, but he'll be pinging it as much as anyone once camp starts.